AN: Yes, I'm doing that thing again, where I revise already posted works. So sue me.
Desperate times called for desperate measures.
Hitler and his army continually bounced back from everything thrown at them, forcing their enemies to construct bigger and better solutions to the iron fist of injustice gripping Europe.
Never had the name HYDRA been more appropriate – for every facility raided, soldier killed, scientist taken into custody, at least three more seemed to pop up out of nowhere to take their place.
The Strategic Scientific Reserve worked day and night, tirelessly fighting to produce weapons, strategies, anything to put a stop to this mad man and to the group that did not seem to follow even his orders.
In the aftermath of the war, things changed rapidly. Any mention of the SSR around government and army officials led to mysterious bouts of deafness, all paperwork about some of their more extreme suggestions either buried or destroyed.
The most controversial of these, Project Rebirth, wound up the focus of fierce debate among the government and the army itself, because the result of Project Rebirth, Captain Steve Rogers, had been listed as MIA since his plane crashed into the Arctic Sea two months earlier.
To begin with, search and rescue parties launched as often as they could, the Howling Commandos leading the charge to bring their captain home.
But, as time passed, the orders arrived, splitting the Commandos up and sending them back to their original platoons and taking away any ability to do anything.
The last to fall was Agent Peggy Carter. Her transfer from the SSR to the US Armed Forces was smooth, but her responsibilities dwindled to filing and letter writing.
Peggy missed her old colleagues dearly. If any were put off by the fact that she was female, they had seldom shown it, and those she interacted with on a regular basis treated her as nothing less than an equal.
This new team were not actively hostile, but they never quite met her eyes when they spoke to her, mistrust evident in their eyes and voice.
Why are you here, they seemed to be saying. The war is over. Get back where you belong.
Peggy ignored every last implied insult, maintaining the cool, collected exterior that had served her through the worst of the combat.
The disrespect towards her, however covert, was to be expected, if not accepted, an unfortunate side effect of trying to make a military career as a woman now that war no longer made it a necessity.
A less stubborn woman might have returned to her native England, to the job at MI6 she had been assured was waiting for her.
But her mother had been killed in one of the many bombings of London, her father had suffered a heart attack when she was a child, and her grandparents had long since passed on, so there was no one to return to, and, besides, Peggy was not merely stubborn: she was a woman with a mission.
Captain America was a hero.
Steve Rogers was a good man – one of the best and bravest Peggy had ever met.
Whether they were the same person, or the former was simply an act Steve had donned along with the uniform, she didn't know, but it all ended in the same way.
It all ended with Steve Rogers crashing a plane into the Arctic, because he could walk away if the plane hit Manhattan, but the locals wouldn't.
Because his life, as always, was worth less than theirs.
It all ended with Steve Rogers dying to protect New York, sacrificing himself like the soldier he had always been, even before the serum and the muscles and the shield.
She was not going back to England – wasn't going anywhere – until Steve had been found and brought back home, even if she had to spend her summers diving in the Arctic herself.
The week following her transfer (or 'demotion' to be more accurate) ended with a visit from a low-level government clerk who stumbled into her office about an hour before she was due to go home. He didn't knock, and she gave him such an icy look that he turned bright red and began stammering for ten minutes without making much sense.
"Spit it out." She said crisply, her patience wearing thin.
"They sent me for Captain America's belongings, ma'am." He said hastily.
Peggy slowly replaced the cap of her pen and set it to one side. "Did they?" She asked coldly. "And what do they want with them?"
"I'm not sure." He admitted, rubbing the back of his neck sheepishly.
For a split-second, an image of Steve doing exactly the same thing flashed across her memory and she dropped her gaze to her paperwork before he could see the pain in her eyes. "Well, you're going to have to disappoint them."
"Ma'am, I have my orders." He said, taking a hesitant step towards her. "The guy I spoke to seemed to think that you had them."
Peggy brushed a foot against the box under her desk, filled with sketchbooks and what few personal effects Steve had owned with his army uniform folded up on top. "I know what is going to happen, if you take them. They will end up in a museum, continuing the work of 'Captain America' because they're easier to deal with. They don't speak, they don't argue, they don't risk disobeying orders, because Captain America had a name and a spirit and they are leaving him to rot in a watery grave because it isn't fucking convenient to go looking for him. So, no, you can't take them and they are just going to have to deal with it." Her voice cracked embarrassingly, but she ignored it, glaring at him with venom that was no less in its intensity for the tears in her eyes.
"I understand, ma'am." He said gently, and there was a sympathy – not a pity – in her eyes that said that, yes, he did understand. "But I have no choice. Unless Captain Rogers had any family?"
Peggy's glare softened, both at the clerk's attitude and the change of address. "No, I don't believe he did. His father died before he was born, mother died when he was eight, and his next of kin was Sergeant Barnes and …" a lump formed in her throat, momentarily silencing her before she managed to fight past it. "He's dead too."
He took another step towards her. "Because if he had family, his belongings would have to go to them. If he didn't, I have to take them."
Peggy grimaced, rubbing her temples and wishing for something alcoholic. "Then I'm afraid we find ourselves at an impasse."
The man heaved a sigh and closed the distance to her desk, leaning across it and lowering his voice so he couldn't be heard by anyone passing the open door. At this distance, she could almost count the stitches in his collar. "Agent Carter," he murmured, "work with me. If Captain Rogers had family, I would have no choice but to surrender his belongings to them. Do you understand?"
"Yes, but …" Peggy trailed off, his words suddenly registering with her. "Yes." She repeated softly. "Yes, I believe I do."
"Good." The man said, straightening up with a deceptively innocent expression. "Agent Carter, did Captain Rogers have any family?"
"Yes." Peggy answered, the lie tumbling out of her mouth with ease. "But they're miles away. Would you like the address?"
The smile he gave her was positively gleeful, and she couldn't help returning it. He was almost unrecognisable as the man who had burst through her door, his discomfort wiped away by the chance to get one-up on the superiors he so obviously disagreed with. "I'm afraid I really don't have the time, far too busy. I don't suppose I could impose on you to deliver them, could I? I'm sure they would appreciate it far more coming from someone who knew him."
"Not at all." Peggy said demurely, her tone at odds with the glint in her eye. "I'm sorry you had to come all the way out here for no reason, Mr …?"
"Steynes." He supplied, shaking her offered hand. "Michael Steynes. It was a pleasure, Agent Carter, and, if I may, I'm very sorry for your loss."
"Thank you." Peggy tightened her grip for a second, catching his attention before he could pull away. "And if I may, Captain Rogers would have been very impressed by you."
His face reddened, possibly even more so than when he had first entered, and he hastily took his leave.
Peggy shook her head in amusement, reaching for the telephone on her desk. Her smile felt foreign and unfamiliar, such a rarity it was for her to smile these days.
Monday morning would bring another visit, someone less inclined to take no for an answer, and the items had to be off base by then, or she would have no hope of protecting Steve's memory.
By necessity, then, she would also need to find an actual place to live that wasn't on base, so she had somewhere to store them.
Fortunately, both of these things could be accomplished by a single telephone call and she dialled Howard Stark's number from memory. She only had two days' leave, but if anyone could work miracles in this situation, it was Howard.
"Good evening, Jarvis." Peggy greeted, recognising Howard's butler's voice. "It's Agent Carter. Could I speak with Mr Stark please?"
"Certainly, Agent Carter. He will be with you in one moment."
Peggy waited patiently, absently toying with the telephone cord.
"Peggy! How are you?"
Her smile grew, betraying how much she had missed the man who had become such a good friend during the war. "I'm getting there. It's good to hear your voice, Howard. It's been a while."
"It has indeed." He agreed. "I'm glad you called – I was just about to call you actually. I'm having a little get-together this evening; are you free?"
Peggy raised an eyebrow, even though he couldn't see her. That was so like Howard, to leave such an invitation until the last minute. "As a matter of fact, I am."
"Wonderful. I can send a car to pick you up – half an hour alright?"
"Perfectly fine." Peggy said. "As a matter of fact, that's why I called. I need your help …"
Over the next thirty minutes, and the subsequent ride to his Manhattan home, Peggy thought long and hard about what kind of 'get-together' Howard was having, but the last thing she expected, after he had greeted her with a hug at the door and ushered her through to the sitting room, was at least twenty women, waiting with tumblers of scotch.
Peggy observed them for a few minutes, turning detective when it became clear that Howard was not about to make introductions. They were all fairly young, a mixture of blonde, brunettes and redheads, their clothes betraying a range of backgrounds – in fact, the only thing they seemed to have in common were finely toned muscles, which suggested that they were either soldiers or …
"Howard," Peggy said calmly. "Why do you have a room full of USO dancers?"
"They turned up en masse this afternoon." Howard explained. "Wanted my help. Ladies, this is Agent Peggy Carter, formerly of the SSR. She worked with Captain Rogers."
"Is it true, ma'am?" One of the women asked. "Are they really going to leave him out there?"
Peggy hesitated, thrown off by the question, but of course Steve had managed to inspire loyalty in his dancers as easily as his men. "Yes, I'm afraid they are."
"It ain't right." Another of the women said, scowling. "After all he did."
"We'll get him back." Peggy said, with more certainty than she felt. "Even if it takes me the rest of my life, I will bring him home."
"I couldn't agree more." Howard put in, pushing a glass into her hand and raising his own. "To Steve Rogers."
The toast echoed around the room and Peggy took a sip, the alcohol burning its way down her throat, excusing the tears stinging behind her eyes. She blinked them away hastily, but Howard, with remarkable perceptiveness (for him, at least) steered her into a chair, pressing a handkerchief into her hand. "Long week?"
"The longest." Peggy muttered, dabbing at her eyes. Here, hidden away from much of the world, she could afford to drop her guard a little, allow herself to accept the comfort Howard offered her. "They won't look. The war's over. We don't … We don't need Captain America anymore."
"Forget Captain America!" The woman closest to her protested. "That's just PR, anyone can wear a costume – what about Captain Rogers?"
Peggy set the handkerchief on her lap, taking another sip of scotch. "I didn't know you knew him that well."
A blonde woman, clearly the oldest present (although that wasn't saying much), took a drag of her cigarette, laughing as she exhaled. "Six months on tour, doll."
"I know that." Peggy said, dropping her gaze. "But Steve was hopeless at talking to women."
The woman closest to her giggled. "Wasn't he just? Took him almost a month to relax around us. We were worried at first – I'd say you can't imagine how men treat showgirls, but I bet you can …"
"What Maria's trying to say," her neighbour chimed in, "is that once he stopped blushing and stammering, he was an absolute doll to have around. Remembered everything we mentioned around him, family, birthdays … he used to help us do our hair; we taught him how to French-braid …"
Howard chuckled. "Barnes is spinning in his grave – he'd have left with an army of bastard kids, and Steve left with hair-styling tips."
Peggy managed a weak smile, but thoughts of Bucky's grave (or lack thereof – and when did he become 'Bucky' in her mind, instead of 'Barnes', or even 'James') would soon lead to the memory of Steve's reaction to his loss, to that dark, smoky room, more secluded than they had any right to be, while he pretended he wasn't crying and she pretended she couldn't see his tears and they both avoided saying anything about the unspoken feelings between them, because it wasn't the time or place.
And now there would never be a time or place, but she had to get rid of those thoughts, lest she completely break down. "So, Howard," she said, desperate to change the subject, "what are you up to?"
"Up to?" Howard repeated innocently, perching on the arm of her chair. "Why, my dear, what on Earth do you mean?"
"Howard, we've known each other too long for that to work." Peggy said good-naturedly. "What are you up to?"
One of the older women made an approving noise, smiling at the two of them. "Have the two of you set a date yet?"
"A date?" Howard asked blankly, but Peggy caught on faster.
"Oh! Oh, no, Howard and I aren't …" Fondue-ing, her brain finished, and she choked back a laugh that threatened to turn to tears. "We're just friends. Very good friends, yes, but nothing more than that."
"She had a date with Captain Rogers the Saturday after he disappeared." Howard explained in a low voice, a hand resting on her wrist.
A murmur of sympathy ran around the room and Peggy closed her eyes, steeling herself against it, and the emotions that threatened her. Her hands trembling with the effort, she set her glass down on the small side table nearby, a little more forcefully than she needed to, and another hand – a female hand – closed around hers, squeezing gently.
Her eyes snapped open to see that the woman closest to her – Maria – had reached out to her, her eyes awash with understanding.
Peggy opened her mouth, hesitated, unsure what to say, and settled for a small smile, before turning to Howard. "Well? What are you up to?"
Howard's fingers contracted on her other wrist momentarily, before releasing her. "It's not just Steve they've dropped the ball on. HYDRA's officially disbanded, but we all know they're still out there …"
"But what can we do?" Peggy asked in exasperation. "I'm the last person you have to convince of that, Howard, but what can we do? The government's pretending they died with Hitler – may he rot in Hell, the armed forces don't have the funding, the SSR's been disbanded …"
"So let's start something new." Howard said, his eyes gleaming with the excitement that usually accompanied a new creation and always spelled trouble. "If they won't face down HYDRA, or look for Steve, we'll do it ourselves."
"We can't …" Peggy hesitated, thinking it through. "Can we do that?"
"Why not?" Howard asked enthusiastically.
Looking around the room of similarly determined faces, Peggy finally allowed herself a proper smile. "Why not indeed?"
It took a lot of work, a lot of funding, and most frustratingly (to Peggy, at least) a lot of paperwork, but finally, in January 1946 the headquarters for the Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division was officially opened in New York City.
It had grown from a glimmer of an idea to a stark (no pun intended) reality, a global (hopefully) organisation dedicated to world peace.
It was Peggy who had named the organisation in the end – she, Howard, and the rest of the Commandos wanted something to honour Steve and a night alone with a notepad and a dictionary allowed them to do just that – so SHIELD they had become and SHIELD they would stay, with Howard Stark heading up Research and Development, and Director Peggy Carter at the helm.
Several leaders across the world refused point blank to deal with a woman, and those that agreed to meetings did nothing to hide their disdain – at least within the first few minutes.
Peggy was well-schooled in the art of diplomacy, however – her time in the Armed Forces demanded it – and carried herself with a dignified grace that won over most of the leaders she encountered, all of whom left the meetings eager to work with SHIELD (if not necessarily the United States) in maintaining some kind of peace across the world.
Interestingly enough (and Peggy never voiced this observation to anyone else) it was the countries who boasted 'progressive views' about women's liberation that had the most trouble accepting her.
For the first eighteen months, Peggy was rushed off her feet, building up personnel, forming the different departments SHIELD would need, maintaining relations with their sister agencies and allied nations, and just generally doing a hundred things at once, but finally things began to slow down enough for Peggy to actually participate in some of their missions, which made a lot of people complain.
Any agency (even a global one) has to have something regulating it and, since SHIELD, was not a solely US agency so therefore could not be under the control of their government, a new board had been set up with diplomats from across the world.
Peggy tended to ignore the World Security Council when they called, if she could help it. It was made up of members who had never seen combat, who had sat through the wars in offices, tutting at the state of the battlefields, and therefore had no idea of the realities facing her agents. The need for SHIELD to have a deterrent was maybe an obvious one – but Peggy couldn't help wondering what the deterrent for the World Security Council was, because she didn't trust them as far as she could throw them.
She did not, however, say any of this, saving her rebellion for particular moments and ceding the smaller battles.
The Council had several people they wanted SHIELD to take on, for example, many of them scientists who were experts in their field, and since they had already been vetted, Peggy saw nothing wrong with hiring said applicants, while the Council's suggestion that Director Carter should 'remain out of the field' was resolutely ignored.
Director Carter, she might be, but Peggy knew where her strengths lay and where she would be of most use, and they would not be 'in an office pushing paper' for a good number of years yet. She was a perfectly capable agent by herself, let alone with backup, and she considered it a waste (not to mention an act of supreme cowardice) to sit behind closed doors and let her subordinates have all the fun.
It might have been considered ironic, then, that after all that, it was a trip to the grocery store that was almost fatal.
In the end, it all came down to potatoes.
Rationing had ended over a year ago, but Peggy had become so accustomed to living frugally – not to mention the number of campaigns reminding people that not keeping to rations was akin to treason (one of them had Steve and his Disappointed Captain America face, and that was enough to make anyone feel guilty) – that she found herself sticking to it more often than not.
Certainly, she indulged in certain items (she'd never liked black coffee, so sugar was a luxury she savoured), but for the most part she stuck to simple meals that she could cook in bulk and freeze for later, and potatoes were so versatile that she used them in more or less everything.
On this day, however, she had run out, so made a detour on the way home to pick some up at the grocery store.
Another of the World Security Council's requirements (or, as Peggy preferred to refer to them, 'proof we have no idea what we're talking about) was that she had agents escort her to and from work, presumably in case someone tried to kidnap or assassinate her.
Since Peggy managed missions – some without backup nearby – on a regular basis, the idea that she couldn't defend herself was laughable, but it was another battle that Peggy just didn't have the energy to fight it.
In any case, the agents who ended up with that duty tended to be ones who liked and respected her (genuinely so, not the ones who did to her face and complained behind her back), so it was easy to pretend that she was merely getting a lift home with friends and not being 'guarded'.
Still, she drew the line at having her hand held to go shopping so, when they had stopped in the street outside the store, she told them to wait in the car.
The store was quiet when she walked in – too quiet, she realised a split-second too late, when a gun swung around to aim at her face.
There were two men, neither of whom had bothered to cover their faces, which either meant they were amateurs or that they were not intending on leaving any witnesses alive.
Peggy could work with either scenario, but acting right now would only serve to get herself (and the clerk cowering behind the counter) shot, so she raised her hands, fear slipping into her eyes and voice. "Oh God … I'm sorry … I didn't see anything … please can I …"
"Don't move!" The man aiming at her snapped. "You! Hand it over! Now!" His gun moved back to cover the clerk, dismissing her as a threat.
She began to edge ever so slowly towards the shelves, catching the clerk's eye as he hurried to hand over his earnings for the day. Once she was in position, she could hopefully signal for him to take cover as well and then …
The bell over the door rang as it swung open and a child screamed.
The sound pierced the air, the car doors slammed outside as the agents scrambled to back her up, and Peggy's hand flew to the gun at her hip.
But the scream had elicited a kind of knee-jerk reaction in the gunmen, who spun around and shot twice in the direction of the perceived threat.
Time seemed to slow and Peggy glanced behind her to see a girl of about ten, money clutched in her hand, frozen in place as the bullets tore towards her, and she moved without thinking.
Peggy managed to get off two shots before the bullets hit her, her body acting as a shield for the terrified girl, and she hit the ground heavily, pain seeping into what felt like every nerve ending in her body.
The other agents bolted inside, she could hear the fight that ensued, the sobs of the girl she was protecting, but she saw nothing and all too soon, her ears failed her too as she slipped into darkness.
When Peggy awoke, it took her a while to remember what had happened. The mattress beneath her was too soft, the sheets too gentle for a hospital, even though the tell-tale scratchiness of a hospital gown brushed against her skin.
Only when she tried to sit up and pain lanced through her chest did her memory return to her and she slumped back against her pillows with a frustrated whimper.
Almost immediately, there was a knock at the door.
"Come in." She called weakly.
Edwin Jarvis stepped into the room. "Good afternoon, Director Carter."
Peggy took another look around her, at the lavishly but tastefully decorated bedroom she was lying in – for obvious reasons, she had never seen the bedrooms at Howard's mansion, even the spare ones, but that didn't mean she wasn't curious. "Good afternoon, Jarvis. I don't suppose you can tell me why I'm here, can you?"
"Mr Stark was very insistent he fill you in, ma'am." Jarvis said apologetically. "Can I fetch you anything?"
Peggy sighed, anxiety gnawing at the pit of her stomach. Had she failed to protect the child? Was Howard sparing her some kind of dreadful news? "Something tells me coffee is a bad idea right now." She muttered. "Just a glass of water please."
"Certainly, Director Carter." Jarvis said, disappearing again.
"You can just call me Peggy, you know!" She called after him, but she doubted he heard her.
Howard appeared in the doorway just a few minutes later, a glass of water in one hand and a small posy of flowers in the other. "Peggy, thank God!" He practically stumbled across the room, setting the glass down on the nightstand, and bent to kiss her forehead. "You had us worried."
Peggy raised an eyebrow, nodding at the flowers. "Not your style."
"Oh, these aren't from me." Howard said, handing them to her. "You saved that girl's life. I knew you'd want to know how she was, so I found out who she was and went to check on her. She asked me to give them to you."
Peggy's heart warmed and she took the flowers with a smile. It was an eclectic bunch of different blossoms, hardly the perfect arrangements of florists, but all the more beautiful for that. "Thank you. Why aren't I in a hospital?"
"You were shot four times." Howard said in a low voice. "The doctors … the doctors said there wasn't anything they could do … that you were dying."
"Were?" Peggy repeated, seizing on the past tense desperately. "What happened?"
"They said there was nothing they could do." Howard repeated. "But there'd been a fire, and the wards were overcrowded, and I couldn't just leave you there, so I convinced them to let me discharge you so you could … you could die in comfort."
It hadn't answered her question, and Peggy drew in a breath, partly to prove to herself that she still could. "Thank you. How long was I unconscious?"
"About eighteen hours." Howard answered.
"Eighteen hours." Peggy repeated. "The doctors said I was a lost cause, and I'm awake eighteen hours later? Am I dying or aren't I?"
"I don't think so." Howard said, his hands hovering over the neck of her gown. "May I?"
Peggy nodded, because there was a time and a place to be bashful and 'proper' and this wasn't one of them. She watched as well as she could as he tugged the neck of her nightdress down and lifted the bandage above her right breast. The wound looked ugly to her, but when he spoke, his voice was tinged with relief.
"Now that looks much better than it did last night." He replaced the bandage and withdrew, allowing her to tug her gown back into place. "Jarvis has put in a call to my physician, he'll be here soon. Maybe he can shed some light on this."
Peggy nodded, the room around her beginning to fade again. "Howard, I think I'm going to pass out again."
"You'll be alright." His voice said, even as he himself disappeared. "I promise."
"There's not enough time, I've gotta put her in the water!"
"I'm gonna have to take a rain check on that dance."
"We'll have the band play something slow. I wouldn't want to step on your …"
Peggy jolted awake, the awful sound of the radio shorting out echoing in her ears. It was not an uncommon dream, but it still set her heart racing, and she wound her fingers into her sheets, trying to ground herself.
Sometimes, so accustomed to this nightmare she was, she could fall asleep again within a few minutes.
Tonight, however, sleep evaded her and she sat up, reaching across to switch on the lamp, illuminating the tiny bedroom of her apartment.
Instantly, a scream ripped from her throat and she jerked back against the headboard, shrinking away from the man standing at the foot of her bed.
It wasn't fear that drove her reaction, but horror – Steve Rogers looked at her with dead eyes, his skin tinged with blue, his uniform encrusted with ice.
"Peggy?" He whispered. "Where are you? I want to come home … please … I'm s-s-so c-c-c-cold …"
"We're looking!" Peggy said, her voice breaking. "I swear to you, Steve, we're looking – we'll find you … I'm sorry …"
"Why can't I come home?" He asked, shivering. "I've done everything … can't I come home …?"
She squeezed her eyes shut – this was another nightmare, it had to be, she just had to wake up …
Come on … come on, wake up …
Steve's shield knocked against the bedframe over and over again, the sound keeping her rooted in place, preventing her from focussing on anything else.
Peggy's eyes shot open to show her a coffee mug turned on its side. Or rather …
She blinked a few times.
No. The mug was right side up.
She had fallen asleep on her paperwork.
Well, that's embarrassing.
The noise of Steve's shield was someone in the corridor outside knocking on her door, and she sat up, running a hand through her hair to neaten it. "Come in."
An agent slipped inside, but didn't speak, standing to attention.
"Good evening, Agent … Williamson." Peggy said, identifying him after only a second's hesitation. "I do apologise, it's been a long day."
"That's quite alright, ma'am."
Peggy leaned back in her chair, stretching surreptitiously as she did. "At ease, Agent." She waited for him to return to parade rest, taking advantage of the few seconds to work out why he might have come to speak with her. "Operation: Valkyrie?"
"Unsuccessful, ma'am." He reported, confirming her guess.
Peggy heaved a sigh, her eyes darting to the framed photograph of Steve on her desk. "Thank you, Agent Williamson. Write it up." He hesitated and she transferred her attention back to him, arching an eyebrow. "Is there a problem, Agent?"
"Are we in trouble, ma'am?"
Peggy smiled comfortingly. "No, you're not in trouble. You're not the first team we've sent out there and you won't be the last. I'd be more surprised if you had been successful."
"If I may, ma'am, why are we searching for it?" He asked tentatively. "I know the Valkyrie was a HYDRA plane, but why is it so important that we find it?"
Peggy pondered how best to answer the question.
Officially, Captain Steve Rogers was missing, presumed dead.
Officially, searching for his body was a waste of time and funding.
Officially, the Valkyrie contained potentially revealing data and equipment that would uncover more of HYDRA's plans.
"Let's just say it was carrying precious cargo." She answered.
Some agents knew the official line, some knew the truth. Eventually, Williamson would probably be told the full story, but she had no wish to broach the subject now, not after the dream she'd just had.
He sensed the dismissal and left her to her thoughts.
In just under three weeks, it would be three years since Steve's disappearance. She had to accept that he was dead, could not afford to be clouded by sentimentality, but that did not prevent her from censoring the word 'death' within the privacy of her own mind.
With the exception of the unmitigated failure (so far) of Operation: Valkyrie, SHIELD had grown from strength to strength in the year since her near-death experience, and yet it felt so much longer than a year, as though Peggy was watching time pass through murky water, life around her slow and stodgy.
Her hand rose automatically to her chest, gently rubbing the place the bullet had entered. Howard's physician had examined the wounds carefully before announcing, in a thoroughly bewildered voice, that, while they were rather nasty injuries, they were definitely not life-threatening, and did she want to have the hospital investigated.
Peggy had refused, putting the error down to a bad day and a chaotic situation, far too preoccupied to worry any further about it.
After all, it was not every day that you had to face your own mortality in such a controlled environment.
It was not the first time Peggy's life had been in danger, but she was used to frantic firefights and adrenaline rushes, not lying in a luxurious bed and waiting for the end.
Afterwards, she refused to speak about it, even to Howard, who had scarcely left her side. He said he understood – everyone did – but they couldn't.
How could they understand that she had never been afraid?
Shocked, yes; apprehensive, certainly; but not afraid.
How could they understand that, for a few seconds, the thought of seeing Steve again had clouded her assured survival with a pang of disappointment?
So she buried it, not just because they wouldn't understand, but because it made her angry, because she didn't want to be someone whose life depended on a man, because she wasn't that person.
It took her several months before she accepted that those few seconds did not mean that her life had somehow been reduced to nothing without Steve, or that she had some kind of death wish, merely that death did not scare her.
"Do not pity the dead, my darling," her mother had told her once, after a neighbour had passed away, "for it is those of us left behind who suffer."
Elizabeth Carter had never been truly happy about her daughter's career choice, but she would have adored Steve.
With a heavy sigh, Peggy pushed her chair away from her desk and stood up, setting the paperwork aside.
Williamson's team was back a day earlier than planned, so turning to Howard for conversation and company was – granted, not impossible, but Howard had a date that she was not going to let him miss.
Although almost all of the USO dancers had contributed to the funding of SHIELD if they could, few were involved in the day-to-day running, returning to their own lives, even if they did attend the yearly memorial lunch with the Howling Commandos.
One of the younger dancers, Maria Carbonella, who had reached out to Peggy in her grief, had joined up though, as a secretary, not an agent, helping where she could and had – not unsurprisingly – caught Howard's eye.
Both fairly tall and dark, the two made an attractive match and Peggy, who had grown very fond of Maria, could not be more in favour of the two beginning a relationship, but Howard had only just managed to invite her out for dinner.
Privately, Peggy would admit to considering locking the two of them in a supply cupboard if he hadn't – she was relieved it hadn't come to that.
So rather than going to find Howard, she made her way through the almost empty corridors of SHIELD, bidding goodnight to the agents she saw on their way home, straight to the onsite gym.
Much to her relief it was empty and she didn't bother changing, attacking one of the punching bags with gratifying ferocity.
Each hit took her closer and closer to the edge of breaking down, the unprotected skin breaking against the bag, the stinging cuts grounding her.
Tonight's nightmare had not been the first and yet somehow she was always shaken by it, whereas simply reliving the radio call she could handle.
Maybe it was because the radio call was real and she had done all she could, stayed with him until the end and distracted him from his impending demise.
Maybe it was because they still didn't know what had happened out there. She wanted desperately to believe that the impact had killed Steve outright, maybe caused brain trauma, or impaled his heart, or something that killed him quickly and cleanly.
Anything was better than the alternative, but it was the alternative that she couldn't help imagining – his desperate attempts to escape the cockpit filling up with water, fighting for air as hypothermia set it, paralysing his limbs, leaving him helpless, unable to fight against drowning, his suffering prolonged by the serum, forcing his lungs to heal over and over and …
Her last swing threw her off balance and she staggered forwards, falling to her knees on the gym floor, taking gasping breaths as she tried to regain control.
Cut it out, Margaret; you're not out of breath. You're hyperventilating, get a grip. Deep breaths. Start counting.
It was a trick she had learned in her time as field nurse – hyperventilation victims could rarely focus on their own breathing, but getting them to count in their heads often slowed their breathing without them realising it.
Sure enough, within a few minutes, Peggy was able to straighten up and realise that she had been thrown off balance, not because of an overwhelming wave of emotion, or because of a bad hit, but because the punching bag simply wasn't there anymore.
Her last swing had taken if off the chain completely and hurled it across the room to the opposite wall, where it had shattered, sand spilling out across the floor.
Her breath caught in her chest again and she stared at the damage in dumbfounded silence.
It shouldn't have been possible, even if the chain was weak – the bag should have dropped, not flown across the room – no human could manage that, not with a single punch.
That's not true, a voice in her mind murmured. Steve could have done it. But no ordinary human could …
Her thoughts stuttered to a halt, her hand flying once again to the place the bullets had entered, slipping under her shirt and brushing against smooth skin.
There was no scar, not even a glimmer, that she had put down to excellent medical care, but now …